Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 1;   January 1, 2003: Saying No

Saying No

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

When we have to say "no" to customers or to people in power, we're often tempted to placate with a "yes." There's a better way: learn how to say "no" in a way that moves the group toward joint problem solving.

If she had a choice, Robin would have gladly elected a root canal instead. But there she sat, with most of senior management bearing down on her. They wanted a simple "Yes, I'll make it happen." But she just couldn't say that.

Instead, she said, "I don't know how to get it done by then, and more money won't help. I'd propose instead that we find another way to meet their needs while we get this done."

Virginia  Satir's Yes No MedallionSilence, as everyone waited to see how Warner would react. He gave her that famous glare, but Robin was prepared. She stared back.

"What did you have in mind?" he asked.

Robin knew immediately that she was home free, because instead of blaming and intimidating, they were now problem-solving. She had used one of several workable techniques for Saying No to Power. There's always a risk when you try it, but a risk of upsetting Power by saying "No" now is almost always better than the certainty of upsetting them when your placating "Yes" implodes a few months from now.

To help you stay centered
as you say no,
use "I" statements
To feel good about saying no, start by feeling good about yourself. Then adding the no is a small step. When you say no, you're just stating the truth as you see it. To help you focus on this centered approach, use "I" statements as you say no. Examples:

I don't know how to do that.
If you honestly don't see how to do it, it's better to let them know now than it is to have them discover it later, after you said you could do it. Remember, your limitations are not yours alone. If you don't know how to do it, there's an excellent chance that nobody does.
I can't do that by the time we need it. Could you help me adjust some priorities?
Another way to say this one is, "Sure, I can do that, but it would have to be instead of something else that's less important." Then the two of you can negotiate priorities.
I don't know how to meet that date with the schedule we've already accepted from our supplier. Can we get those components from them any earlier?
Now the group is problem-solving a critical-path schedule issue. Perhaps someone in the room can work this issue better than you can.
I don't know how we can meet that date. What would happen if we were a week late?
This moves the discussion to a question of the target date. In most cases, a one-week delay is OK, so this is actually an exploration of the boundary of "OK."

As you practice, you'll find your own ways to say no. Coming from you, your own no is almost always safer and more powerful than someone else's yes. Go to top Top  Next issue: Toxic Projects  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

For more on saying no, see "Saying No: A Tutorial for Project Managers."

For a survey of tactics for managing pressure, take a look at the series that begins with "Managing Pressure: Communications and Expectations," Point Lookout for December 13, 2006.

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